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Meet the Kargil veteran who has taken Sonia Gandhi and Manushi Chhillar to the sky

Athira Nair
7th Jan 2018
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Having flown Cabinet ministers and celebrities like actor Nawazzudein Siddiqui, GoChoppers has earned Rs 6 crore this fiscal year

India’s topography is as diverse as its culture, and both have attracted millions of tourists from inside and outside the country. In the north of India, however, accessibility is way lesser than needed. Even states with Himalayan mountains have little helicopter service available, despite their roads being unmotorable for six months in a year because of snow or rain or landslide.

This was known to Capt. Puneet Bakshi(46), a retired Indian Air force pilot (WgCdr) and veteran of Kargil War 1999. When he decided to start a second career after voluntarily quitting the IAF in 2009, this problem provided him with the perfect opportunity. His entrepreneurial venture introduced heli-tourism in a unique model to India, when – after four years of hard work - he launched GoChoppers in 2016.

In a way, it was the need of the hour. There are few helicopter companies in India that promotes heli-tourism, even though most places of historical and tourist interest are difficult to reach by flight due to lack of airports.

While GoChoppers primarily targets the high-end tourists across Europe and the US who want to explore the exotic locations within India, it caters to the domestic passengers and NRIs visiting India for pilgrimage purpose as well. GoChoppers also offers luxury business jet services to the corporate and diplomatic circles.  

From guarding the nation to launching a startup

Captain Bakshi, as an entrepreneur, is not your usual tech-savvy millennial who has a few years’ work experience in a corporate firm. He is an alumnus of the National Defence Academy, and has flown jets, with rockets, bombs, missiles, front guns, barrel rolls, loops etc., and helicopters for more than 5,000 hours. He has flown Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi and daughter Priyanka Gandhi among other VIPs. He retired as Director of Operations from Air Force Headquarters.

Capt. Puneet Bakshi, Founder and MD, GoChoppers

In the Kargil war, Capt. Bakshi was part of the Forward Area Reconnaissance (FAC), which was instrumental in carrying out air strikes.

He claims to have saved 832 lives over three days during the Kedarnath disaster relief operations in 2013. He was part of the State government’s efforts in the rebuilding work of the Kedarnath temple. Aptly, his company was registered under the name Whirl Works Aerial Pvt Ltd. (WWA).

The long beginning 

Civil aviation rules comprise stringent parameters for even qualifying to apply for an aviation company, including a mandatory Rs 2 crore paid-up capital in the company.

Bakshi recollects, “It took two years to qualify for applying for the Air Operators Permit, and in April 2014 we did it. Next step was to arrange Rs 40 crore to procure two helicopters to begin with.”

Although they got loans approved by two banks, the banks wanted an equivalent amount to be pledged as security in terms of assets. So Capt. Bakshi ended up raising the capital in debt and equity funding.

After GoChoppers began operations, Capt. Bakshi’s friend Milan Sharma joined the company as CFO. Milan is a graduate of London Business School and a qualified CFA (ICFAI), MBA (Fin), and LLB.

Once WWA got the license for importing and operating helicopters and aircraft into India for Non-Scheduled Operations (NSOP), they were given security clearance by National Security Guards (NSG) for flying VVIPS, including Cabinet ministers and the Gandhi family.

Being based in Gurgaon is an advantage here, owing to its geographic location and its diasporas. Gurgaon is a corporate hub of over 250 of the Fortune 500 companies. March 2017 onwards, GoChoppers has serviced over 10,000 clients.

Elaborate operational style

Although several entities in the market offer air charters and pilgrimage services, GoChoppers claims to be the first of its kind to amalgamate tourism with general aviation. GoChoppers caters to all of customers’ needs including hotels, cabs, guides and lunches to surprise gifts and personalised souvenirs etc.

Miss World 2018 Manushi Chillar with Miss Julia Morley- Chairwoman of the Miss World Organisation, with GoChoppers' aircraft in the background.

Initially, GoChoppers had hired a helipad and a few helicopters, and started selling services on popular destinations like the Himalayas, the Golden Triangle (Delhi-Agra-Jaipur), Ranthambore etc., as luxury destinations on business jets and helicopters. These packages took off well.

Since 2014, GoChoppers has leased helicopters and used them for flying for direct business from clients for elections and other charters. Now GoChoppers partners with aircraft operators across India that enables the company to offer its services even on a short notice. They also have two helicopters on lease, and are about to buy two helicopters this year. They have pilots on board with the leased aircrafts who are on contract.

The company has also trained three pilots from scratch. Capt. Bakshi too often flies the helicopters, getting a hands-on experience of all parts of the company operations.

GoChoppers is expanding its team of pilots, engineers and operations staff. They also hire seasonal staff; for example, when they set up base in Guptakashi for Kedarnath pilgrimage flying.

GoChoppers has conducted helicopter operations for reconstruction of Kedarnath temple in 2015-16. GoChoppers also works with the governments of Gujarat, Uttaranchal, J&K, Rajasthan and Jharkhand on projects such as heli-skiing, firefighting purposes etc.

Business model

According to Capt. Bakshi, some existing players take up the role of a ‘broker’ that integrates the lowest quote from both ends and combine it and adds hefty commission before presenting it to the client. GoChoppers eliminates middlemen by selling their packages to customers directly.

GoChoppers has three verticals of operations, with three different pricing mechanisms:

  • Air Charter Services for domestic and foreign clients for any destination within the country (billed per hour).
  • Domestic heli-tourism: GoChoppers™ has been certified as a heli-tour provider by the Ministry of Tourism, and is a part now of the Incredible India Campaign. They have serviced more than 15000 – resident and non-resident Indian -pilgrims in 2017.
  • Exotic luxury heli-tours: Essentially targeting overseas clients, GoChoppers provides packages with services including helicopter/fixed wing commute and hospitality solutions to popular as well as off the beaten path destinations. (End-to-end solution is billed as per itinerary.)

Bakshi claims that the business model of GoChoppers is profitable. Their expenses are for growth, especially for marketing their services abroad, in addition to participating in travel trade fairs and conferences across Europe.

GoChoppers has flown many political figures on both personal and political assignments. Amongst other notable celebrities that flew very recently with them include Miss World 2017 Manushi Chhillar and acclaimed Indian actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui.

In June 2017, the Ministry of Tourism provided the company with ‘Grant of e-recognition as an Approved Domestic Tour Operator.’

The second affiliation is a ‘Pledge for Commitment Towards Safe & Honorable Tourism and Sustainable Tourism.’ These are affiliations that must be applied for with the Ministry of Tourism, and are only granted to companies post an audit.

GoChoppers has little competition. Other than the government-run PSU Pawan Hans, the only big helicopter company in India is Global Vectra which services mostly offshore operations for ONGC and oil companies.

Future plans

GoChoppers has done business of Rs. Six crores this fiscal year, and aims to close out the year at revenue of Rs.10 Crores. Over the course of 2018, the company is projected to more than triple its revenue. They are looking for external funding now.

A dozen-strong team, they have offices in Delhi NCR, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Bangkok (Thailand). They also have consultants such as DSAs, PR consultant, chartered accountant, and legal associates.

GoChoppers plans to start an exclusive club in India for HNIs and UHNIs which would include timeshare of business jets and helicopters, as well as access to many exclusive partner ultra-luxury resorts and lifestyle clubs. They will soon launch an app as well.

“We have signed an MoU with the CM of Gujarat in the Vibrant Gujarat Summit to operate helicopters for pilgrimage next year (Depends on the sector of operation),” Capt. Bakshi adds.

Growth of the sector

According to Capt. Bakshi, the next big resurgence in the helicopter industry will be from heli-taxi in congested metro cities, powerline maintenance services, air ambulance, mineral survey, firefighting, search-and-rescue services, and wildlife monitoring.

India is currently the ninth largest aviation market in the world. Annually growing at almost 20 percent, it is expected to be the third biggest in the world by 2025. Recent policy changes by the Central government will be instrumental in aviation industry’s growth.

Under the new aviation policy, helicopters will be allowed to fly below 5,000 feet even without flight plan clearance. Rural Connectivity Schemes (RCS) such as UDAN have been launched to promote investments in aviation.

To encourage the connectivity between small towns, the Central government has offered huge incentives for the aviation sector – like zero tax on import of commercial helicopters, and Viable Gap Funding (VGF) by the Centre to start up new helicopter services.

Hopefully, GoChoppers will lead the path for more noise in the heli-tourism industry which is yet to bloom in India.

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